When it comes to rehabilitating horses, or for me even just owning horses, I approach it with the whole horse in mind. For me my horses are companion animals, riding animals, and animals that I use to facilitate my business. They are also living, breathing beings with their own thoughts, feelings and needs. They make friends, have family groups and form attachments to certain horses, animals and people. My main area of focus in my business is hoof care, but in order to achieve optimal hoof health there are many other areas that must be working properly in order for the hooves to be healthy.
Let’s start with the diet. There are many conflicting opinions on the optimal diet for our horses. I have taken several equine nutrition courses, been to many seminars and done plenty of research. What I have found is that individual horses needs vary so a one size fits all approach doesn’t work. This post isn’t about nutrition specifically so I will try to keep it short. Up until recently I had a specific combination of feeds and minerals that I fed my herd of 10 on a daily basis. I was feeding each feed or mineral for a specific reason that I had predetermined that the horses needed. I was feeding those minerals because of what I had learned about minerals and hoof health. How did I come up with the theory that they needed them? Well I had read, researched or had been told by a trusted source that they needed them. I had never seen any reason in my horses’ outward appearance, behaviour or apparent health that made me think there was a deficiency, but I assumed like most people do that they should be supplemented with something and therefore I built my list of supplements and off I went to the feed store. I fed these things for years until just this past spring when I heard something that interrupted my thought pattern. I had scheduled an osteopathic treatment for two of my horses with Dr. Laura Taylor and it was while in deep discussion with her about equine diets and nutrition that she said something that has stuck with me ever since. She said “if you are feeding or supplementing your horse with something, you should see some type of result”. Weather those results are physical, such as seeing an improvement in their hair coat or outward appearance, emotional, such as seeing less anxiety or behavioural problems, or internal, such as something affecting the organ systems in the body or the musculoskeletal system causing stiffness or even lameness. The point is you should see some type of result from what you are feeding, or you should see a result of not feeding it... This caused me to rethink my horses diets and cut out everything but pasture and hay for three months. What I found was that there was no change in them. Their hair coats were still beautiful and shiny, their hooves were still brilliant and they were still emotionally sound and happy. The moral of the story for me was to keep it simple. And I’m not saying all horses don’t need supplements, but what horse owners need to do is understand what they are feeding and to make sure it is necessary for your horse before blindly feeding something just because someone else does, someone told you to, or because of some fancy packaging. I have now started to include some new supplementation to the hay and pasture diet of my herd, more about this in an upcoming BLOG that will be dedicated to nutrition
MOVEMENT = LIVING ENVIRONMENT
After looking at the diet I also want to address the horse’s living environment. Does he stand around in a stall all day, a small paddock, or a pasture or larger open area? Is he alone or kept with others? What those things mean to me is does the horse get enough movement to fulfill his physical and mental needs? Does he have herd mates to fulfill his social and emotional needs? Does his paddock have an enough varied terrain to adequately stimulate his hooves? This is maybe the most important part to me. My horses live in a herd, on a track based paddock system. They have access to pasture when needed and are constantly on the move. I can regulate their feed and movement as required. None of my horses get “hot” because they are standing around all day, and they don’t get bored because their social and emotional needs are fulfilled. None of them need a “job” or need to be ridden in order to keep their cool. They live like horses, and yet I can ride and play with them as needed. I have very few instances of cribbing or pacing or any other bad habits. Those are byproducts of emotional stress that doesn’t exist in my herd. Making sure the horse’s living environment is conducive to a happy and healthy horse is important because then they are able to keep physically fit and engaged which will help with the healthy hooves we want to grow
DENTAL HEATH = BALANCE
Another huge factor is teeth. I recently went to Florida to further my knowledge and become a graduate of the Horsemanship Dentistry School. This was so important for me as I have always known there was a connection between what was happening in the mouth and the soundness in the body but I needed more information. What I learned was so mind blowing. An imbalance in the teeth will create an imbalance in the jaw that would translate to an imbalance in the neck, shoulders and feet. An imbalance on the front end will affect the hind end and so on. It becomes a cascade effect, and the best part is when I am able to feel an imbalance in the mouth, correct it and see a direct improvement in how the horse moves or behaves. Horses are so innately in tune with themselves that even just a slight dental problem can have a big effect. The dentistry school I went to teaches manual balancing without the use of sedation so that you can watch the horse respond to the changes you make. I have never quite done anything else as intimate and rewarding with my horses as putting my hand inside their unrestricted mouth. With no speculum to protect me, and no sedation to alter their state of mind, I can remove any sharp points inside their mouths and watch them lick and chew and feel the area with their tongue. That is usually followed by them pressing their head into my chest with thanks. No joke, this just gets my heart pumping.
EXERCISE = MUSCLE
The last thing I will touch on in our whole horse approach to health is riding and the subsequent muscle development. Riding can play a huge part in the health of your horse’s hooves. For instance, a balanced horse that is ridden round (not over bent) will be travelling in balance from the front end to the hind end and engaging their core muscles and therefore loading their hooves optimally. A horse ridden hollow or unbalanced will create unbalanced forces on the hooves and therefore may not wear evenly. A horse ridden very over bent will travel with too much weight on the front or hind end and not travel in a balanced manner. How the horse is conditioned to riding will also affect how he will move in the pasture or paddock. Wild horses are conditioned to move 20-40 miles per day on varied terrain and tend to build well balanced bodies and hooves. When we keep horse in domestication we inhibit their ability to move freely and they don’t always understand how to move properly because of this. We must teach them how to carry the weight of a rider and still move in balance and harmony.
HEALTHY HOOVES = HEALTHY HORSES
Kristi Luehr is a barefoot trimmer, author, and founder of the Okanagan School of Natural Hoof Care. She is certified by the Canadian Farrier School as well as the Oregon School of Natural Hoof Care, and also has certification in equine massage and dentistry. Her focus is to educate owners about hoof anatomy, function and proper barefoot trimming that supports and grows healthy and functional hooves specific to each horse's individual needs. She is the author of two online courses specific to hoof care and is always striving to create more educational content for students to learn from.